Feature

A Chinese dissident shames the regime

A blind Chinese legal activist thrust China's treatment of political dissidents into the international spotlight.

What happenedA blind Chinese legal activist embarrassed China and thrust its brutal treatment of political dissidents into the international spotlight this week, after he staged a daring escape from house arrest and took refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Chen Guangcheng’s six-day stay at the embassy triggered a tense diplomatic standoff between Washington and Beijing, which ended with the activist agreeing to leave the diplomatic compound after receiving assurances of his safety from China’s government. U.S. officials said that the deal would allow the self-taught lawyer to reunite with his wife and two children, and to enroll in a university to complete his legal studies. “Making these commitments a reality is the next crucial task,” said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who arrived in Beijing for prescheduled talks with Chinese officials just as Chen was released. But Chen—whose crusade to expose forced sterilizations and abortions had infuriated the government—said he only agreed to the deal because Chinese authorities warned that his wife would be beaten to death if he stayed at the embassy.

The activist fled his home in the eastern province of Shandong last month after 19 months of beatings and illegal house arrest. Under the cover of night, he scaled a 7-foot-high wall authorities had built around his house and was spirited to Beijing by an underground railroad of friends and supporters. Liu Weimin, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, demanded that the U.S. apologize for taking Chen into the embassy and “give assurances that such incidents will not recur.” 

What the editorials saidAmericans can be proud that Chen sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy, said CSMonitor.com. “Despite a perception that it is headed toward decline,” the U.S. still represents “a beacon of freedom and human rights in China.” Activists like Chen are not drawn to the U.S. for support and protection because of America’s economic and military might. “Rather, it is the moral attraction of America’s ideals.”

We must remember those ideals during our dealings with China, said The New York Times. Although the U.S. needs the country’s cooperation on North Korea, Iran, and matters of global trade, our government should remind China’s autocrats that this embarrassing tug-of-war over Chen would never have occurred if they “didn’t deny their people the most basic rights.” 

What the columnists saidSooner or later, China is likely to renege on its end of the bargain, said Susan Glasser in ForeignPolicy.com. Its officials have only promised that the human-rights campaigner will be “treated humanely,” but that doesn’t rule out putting him back under de facto house arrest. There was also no word on the other human-rights activists rounded up for helping Chen escape—“only the American officials urging the authorities ‘to take no retribution’ against them.” The U.S.’s failure to demand a better deal could have long-term repercussions inside China, said Michael Auslin in NationalReview.com. The White House’s display of “apparent weakness” will “not only discourage those fighting for freedom, openness, and human rights in China,” but could also embolden the regime to greater repression.

That’s unfair to the Obama administration, which was “ultimately powerless to help” Chen, said Max Fisher in TheAtlantic.com. Diplomats could have offered Chen permanent asylum, but there’s no way they could have reached his wife and child, who were being guarded by police. Chen is free for now, but the Chinese government clearly feels that “it has lost face.” He and his family will be in continuing danger.

Still, Chen has succeeded in delivering a powerful blow against China’s ruling elite, said Peter Foster in The Telegraph (U.K.). The “battered but indomitable” activist brought the cruelty of China’s one-party state to global attention. It’s almost hard to believe that the vital economic relationship between China and the U.S. could be “held to ransom by one blind man.” But the fact that “a single, solitary human voice can bear witness to the plain truths that powerful nation states too often choose to ignore” should give ordinary citizens of the world “cause for hope and quiet rejoicing.”

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